Saturday, June 22, 2013

Do You Feel Safe?

Several years ago, I was a big fan of a fantasy author named Katherine Kurtz. I absolutely loved the world she created and had a huge crush on one of her characters. But Ms. Kurtz had the annoying habit of making me seriously care about a major character, then killing him or her off in the most tragic way possible.

I quit reading her books because that wasn’t what I wanted. I wanted a story that took me on an adventure and made me think about the world in a new way, but I didn’t want my heart ripped out in the process. Her books just weren’t safe.

By “safe” fiction, I don’t mean free of sex or violence or bad language. I mean that the reader can read with confidence that even though things may get rough and the obstacles may seem insurmountable, the major characters will make it through okay.

It’s the difference between Scrubs and Grey’s Anatomy, between an Adam Sandler movie and a Nicholas Sparks adaptation. You know J. D. isn’t going to die in a fiery plane crash, but practically everyone did on Grey’s Anatomy. Nobody is safe on that show. Well, maybe Meredith Grey will make it because they’d have to change the name or end the series if she died. Hmmm. Expect that to happen in the series finale.

One reason why the romance genre is so popular is the guaranteed happily ever after. No matter what the characters go through, the couple will make amends, discover the truth, or just get over themselves and love each other forever. The hero isn’t going to die in a tragic carriage accident, nor is the heroine going to die in childbirth. They are safe.

Other genres also have their code of safety. In a mystery, the detective may get hurt but always lives to detect another day. The mystery gets solved and justice is served. When one leaves this safe territory, the book ceases to be a mystery and becomes a book with mystery elements. The same with a spy novel. Who wants a book where the evil Dr. X actually kills the spy with sharks wearing lasers on their heads and conquers the world? Unless the book isn’t about that spy at all, but about the villain or the ragtag team of “Mystery Men” who eventually save the day.

Some people denigrate “safe” books. They claim that there is some greater literary value in killing characters off and jerking people’s emotions around. I absolutely disagree. For instance, The Artist garnered rave critical reviews for its examination of popular culture and the veneration of fame – and even did it silent! But at the risk of spoiling (just go la-la-la with your eyes to the next paragraph if you haven’t seen it yet) nobody has to die to do it. (I hope you went la-la-la ‘cause if you didn’t you’re going to hate my freaking guts when you watch it.)
I personally believe that genre does not dictate quality. Jane Austen is about as safe as you can get, but her books reveal the human experience in ways that are still pertinent to readers two hundred years after their initial publication. “Safe” book hating elitists can just kiss my you know what!

So, to all you lovers of safe books, I say huzzah! Stand up for your right to enjoy your reads and feel comforted by them instead of pummeled! Meanwhile, I’m going to keep writing them!


  1. Great post, Arley! I know what you mean about Grey's Anatomy! I'm waiting for McDreamy to drop dead any episode now. Hope you always get your happily ever after! Cheers!

  2. I agree. Maybe ten years ago I'd have been tougher, but now I like my comfort zones. TV series that go on and on with one character dying every couple of weeks annoys me. How can you invest in a character if they get the chop? (There's also the one where they send a character off forever into the blue haze, and that character undertakes an endless journey he would be most unlikely to do if he'd stayed in character). That, too, is why I like my mysteries spiked with romance.

  3. Thanks loads, ladies! I knew I had some fellow safe book lovers out there!!

  4. I absolutely agree! Real life is harsh enough. When I go for entertainment I want a happy ending. Otherwise I'd just watch the news or read the newspaper. #:0)

  5. I never looked at this way, Arley, but you're spot on! Unless I'm in the mood for murder, I don't watch or read anything that isn't "safe." :)

  6. Arley, I so agree. I read a Harlan Coban book once, and he made me care for a character and then tortured and killed her and I will never read anything by him again because of it. I LOVE "safe" fiction!

  7. I had no idea so many people could identify with this! When I head into a book with the knowledge that it could be unsafe, I have a better tolerance for it. I mean, if it's Nicholas Sparks anything can happen. But the worst thing is when you think you're in safe hands. You think you're reading inside a genre that isn't going to do this to you and the author goes for the throat. I feel like my trust has been betrayed. Thanks for the feedback!

  8. Arley, shuffling my toes here, counting the characters I've killed off through the fantasy quartet I'm on the last novel, I went back and changed events in the third, specifically so as to 'save' a character and give her a future...and you know, it feels really good.
    Fantasy as a genre is big on character death, and I used to read books and cry buckets over them, but am not prepared to do that any more, so it has made me question some of the choices I make as a writer too! Great post. :)